Some of the BBC’s most high profile dramas recently have consisted of taking a story with a well-known title, then ‘adapting’ it into a bunch of plots that have nothing to do with the original story and everything to do with a committee of scriptwriters meeting at 9 am on a Monday and struggling to reach any original ideas because the coffee machine they rely on to slice through the exhaustion and apathy clogging their brains is broken. That’s how we got High Camelot Musical and The Sheriff of Nottingham Is an Unsubtle Metaphor for the War on Terror.
I couldn’t even get through the Ladybird Classics edition of The Three Musketeers, so when I caught the last two episodes of The Musketeers on BBC 1 (which evidently likes to keep its exact number of musketeers ambiguous. Possibly they are legion. Possibly there are only two), I couldn’t possibly comment on how much and how badly they’ve changed the source material. I tried the Wikipedia plot summary and found ten paragraphs confusingly crammed with characters whose names have a ‘de’ in them, but the BBC’s version seems pretty much made up from scratch, and unfortunately, from a hilariously terrible scratch, chiefly for these five reasons:
1. You Can See the Plot from Space
Episode 9 wastes no time in setting up its plot. The incredibly drippy and useless King of France is frolicking with the daughter of a comically-accented German moustache while his queen is off enjoying some seventeenth (I think – the historical setting is very vague, just know that this lot haven’t met the guillotine they so richly deserve yet) century fertility treatment. This requires her to wear a flowing robe which is almost as gleamingly, anachronistically white as the cast’s teeth and plunge into the most picturesque lake the series’ low-cost Czech locations can offer, while her ladies-in-waiting float white petals on the water. In a fit of pique, the king rants to his chief advisor, Cardinal Peter Capaldi (of whom more in number 5. So much more), essentially saying “Oh, isn’t it a shame that my queen is still alive when I could have married the German girl and had a bunch of heirs.” Peter Capaldi sadly does not respond with a magnificent tirade of f-words about this unfortunate patrilineal f-up, but he does get an evil glint in his eye, which is almost as good. You’d think that the Machiavellian power behind the throne wouldn’t develop an elaborate plan to murder the queen which would lead to his execution if discovered inspired solely by a throwaway remark by the idiot on the actual throne, but never mind.
Cut to – the queen’s bodyguards at the White Petal Leisure Centre are four blandly pretty young men who I’d forgotten until I saw this were called Aramis, Porthos, Athos and D’Artagnan. Unfortunately they’re too busy engaging in practice bouts of sword-fighting and manly banter to pay any attention to the body they’re meant to be guarding. Suddenly a shot rings out, and the white-cloaked figure emerging from the queen’s tent collapses. Just as you think the remaining fifty-five minutes of the episode will show the Musketeers struggling to explain their incompetence to Human Resources, it turns out that the body was just the queen’s lady-in-waiting, who just happened to have borrowed the special white cloak that’s reserved for royalty only for reasons that are never explained at all, and just happened to be stepping out of the tent at the exact moment when Cardinal Peter Capaldi’s ‘impulse royal assassination’ plan sprang into action. The poor innocent woman who was killed for being in the wrong place at the wrong time gets barely five seconds of vague sadness, before the musketeers ride off with the queen, beginning…
2. An ‘Homage’ to Everything
Cardinal Peter Capaldi’s assassins, wearing anachronistic cowboy hats and face bandanas, track the queen and the musketeers across the Czech Republic in a slow, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid style pursuit. Our heroes stay ahead of them long enough for a Moment when the queen sees Aramis shirtless, but they sense that they’re being followed when the water in their cup starts shaking, signalling the advancing horsemen’s hooves. Restaging a Western in seventeenth-century France is weird, but splicing in a bit of Jurassic Park homage (and, to quote my father, ‘I don’t say a burglar broke into my house and made an homage to my TV set’) is weirder.
On a broader rip-off scale, The Musketeers in general is clearly meant to be the BBC’s attempt to replicate the success of Game of Thrones. I’ve never watched Game of Thrones and never will, but I’ve gathered from general cultural osmosis that it includes a lot of people riding around with their swords jangling in their hilts, shady plottings in one corner of the castle and old-timey underwear being undone in another corner, and this puts me on the exact same level of Game of Thrones knowledge as whichever BBC executive decided to rip it off.
Anyway, the cowboys won’t give up, so the Western rip-off carries onto the next stage – a stand-off. Despite the fact that there are only four of them up against about twenty, the musketeers decide to split their forces. All the knowledge of military tactics I have comes from plotting all-nighters for essays on Middlemarch, but this still struck me as a bad idea. Two musketeers ride off to get help, and the remaining two, with the queen, wall up in a convent, which luckily turns out to be full of…
3. Alarmingly Bloodthirsty Nuns
Athos meets the head cowboy outside the convent in order to negotiate. He offers to let the nuns go free, but when Athos puts it to them, they refuse, saying they want to serve their queen. Not spoken but pretty clear is “Look, a lifetime dedicated to poverty, chastity and obedience is all very well, but now a bunch of boyband-pretty young men in tight leather trousers who sometimes take their shirts off are running around our convent shooting at each other. Frankly, it’s the most exciting thing that’s happened in years, and like hell are we leaving – forgive the language.”
The nuns are almost disturbingly eager to turn everything in their peaceful convent into a weapon. One of the sisterhood shows Aramis their moonshine still (wait, what? Never mind), and cheerfully suggests that they turn the bottles into Molotov cocktails. At this point Aramis realises that this nun in this completely random convent he’s walked into the middle of nowhere just happens to be his ex-fiancée.
But there’s no time to dwell on that, because the cowboys attack. The Mother Superior cocks a shotgun, which she announces that they keep to “Shoot rabbits. And Protestants.” Uh – OK. The nuns chuck Molotov cocktails over the convent walls at the bad guys, then – and my fingertips are trembling with glee at the prospect of typing this – one of the nuns drops a beehive on them.
The bad guys don’t stand a chance against this buzzing mayhem, nor against extremely early muskets that behave exactly like modern firearms and miraculously never break or need reloading. It really is quite disturbing that, despite its larky escapism, The Musketeers still manages to dispatch twenty characters an episode, and the fact that they’re all faceless goons who are shot without a drop of blood only makes it worse. Aramis’ ex-fiancée cops a bullet too. Aramis is heart-broken for about as long as he was over the lady-in-waiting before tumbling into bed with the queen.
4. I Didn’t Care about the Heroes
The main problem The Musketeers faces is that its lead characters just aren’t that compelling. Our four boys are given an endless series of one-liners the caffeine-deprived screenwriters thought sounded badass (when shooting the bad guys from the convent, Athos says “I thought about becoming a priest – until I realised that I prefer dispatching souls to hell!”) But since the actors are frankly not the most talented bunch ever, they completely fail to invest these lines with any sense of the personality behind them that would justify the boast. In the series’ finale they devise a complicated plan to stage a quarrel between them to prove Cardinal Peter Capaldi’s guilt, including D’Artagnan fake-killing Athos in a fake-duel over Milady, Cardinal Peter Capaldi’s henchwoman (because the show’s now moved from ripping off Westerns to ripping off The Sting). The revelation that it was all staged was a genuine surprise, but I’m not sure if that was meant to be because their deliberately fake-acting a feud is as wooden as their sincere-acting a friendship.
5. And the Villains Were Great But Wasted
The villains, in contrast, are genuinely interesting characters, but never get enough screentime to make something of this. When we’re introduced to Head Cowboy Assassin, for instance, he’s acting as the world’s first pest-controller by shooting rats in a barn, dispatching five with perfect aim. It’s a cool moment, but we don’t see much more of the character before he’s killed. Similarly, Milady is a supposed ruthless femme fatale, and the last episode gives an intriguing glimpse into her relationships with Athos (her ex-husband) and her ex-boss/ pimp Sarazin, another underdeveloped character – a campy crimelord of Paris who sits around chugging wine, planning schemes and giggling like an evil Russell Brand. It could have been really interesting to see Milady resort to villainous tactics in order to outwit the men who seek to exploit her, but her story was awkwardly skimmed over. It doesn’t help that she apparently needs brand recogniction for her evil schemes, since she stamps a blue flower over everything, including the moneybox she gives to the rat-catcher in supposed secret, thus giving the musketeers the clue they needed that she and Cardinal Peter Capaldi planned the assassination. Or that she spends half of every episode just leaning against a wall to eavesdrop, in the exact same sexy, menacing, I-could-really-be-pretty-easily-spotted-and-probably-lost-every-childhood-game-of-hide-and-seek-ever pose. Or that her and Sarazin’s evil plan in the final episode consists of luring D’Artagnan’s love interest into a trap that’s about as subtle as an injured D’Artagnan dummy under a cardboard box propped up on a stick, then holding her prisoner by tying her up loosely near the sort of guard who falls asleep drunk with the dungeon key tied around her neck and doesn’t wake up when a bottle is smashed a few feet away from her.
Peter Capaldi is magnificent, of course. Unfortunately, it’s almost embarrassing for the show’s producers to have one actor who can convey more with one tiny clench of his jaw than the rest of the cast combined can with all the badass one-liners the screenwriters could devise, so they even things out by making him the stupidest schemer in existence. His ultimate downfall comes from the line “Then why don’t you explain it to us, then?” Peter Capaldi obligingly takes up this obvious invitation to exposit his evil plot to his greatest enemies, next to several large wooden cupboards, in a universe where women are always, always hiding in corners.
Peter Capaldi may be stupid, but the good guys are stupider. For some reason they hide the queen where she can overhear his exposition about his plot to kill her, who then refuses to tell the king because “It would break his heart.” Why not just let the king overheard Peter Capaldi’s treachery in person? I know he’s useless but he’s a grown man. I’m sure he can cope with the disappointment. Nobody knowing but the queen puts her in a very vulnerable position and gives Peter Capaldi a giant grudge against her.
The one good thing about the end of The Musketeers, then, was that it left Cardinal Peter Capaldi still at large, and looking for some way to get back on top. Sure enough, in the final moments of the episode the queen announces that she’s pregnant, so either the floating petals or boffing Aramis in a convent full of murderous nuns jump-started her ovaries. Then Peter Capaldi interrupts a tender “I know the baby’s really mine but I understand we can’t be together” moment between Aramis and the queen, and smirks a coldly jubilant smirk as he puts everything together. I’m hoping that smirk foreshadows great things and slightly more intelligent scheming for Series 2, but it’s a very cautious hope.